Business caters to Muslim immigrants seeking to fulfill ritual animal sacrifices

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 19, 2010

In a barn in Mount Airy, Ali Manguera pinned a 69-pound goat to the concrete floor, pointed the animal's head toward Mecca -- some 7,000 miles east of this rural Maryland farm -- and slit its throat in a single, expert motion.

Manguera knows this process well. Following a centuries-old tradition, he has been slaughtering his own animals for Muslim holidays since his childhood in Somalia.

But like thousands of Muslim immigrants in the Washington area, Manguera has been forced to adapt old practices to a new land -- a country where state and federal regulations, as well as cultural barriers, complicate the booming business of ritual animal sacrifice and slaughter.

As Ramadan approached last week, Muslim immigrants preparing for their pre-holiday feast sacrificed goats in halal slaughterhouses -- those that conform to Islamic law -- family farms and their garages.

In Mount Airy, Manguera removed the skin and intestines from the animal, draining the entrails into a yellow bucket. The process is slow and deliberate, requiring precision and spurts of brute force. An extra pair of hands would have helped, but farmer Brian Schiner and his managers looked on, unable to assist Manguera.

If any of the farm's employees had so much as touched the goat, they might have been in violation of the federal Meat Inspection Act. In the "on-farm slaughter" business, the law requires that customers buy the animal alive and kill it without help from the farmer.

"This could be so much easier," Schiner said. "But we don't want to break the law."

This budding sub-sector of the meat industry caters to Muslims who want to follow their faith's rules -- to be certain that the animal has been slaughtered humanely with a knife to the throat, that the animal is pointed toward Mecca and that it dies as the slaughterer recites a prayer.

Since the 1980s, the number of goats slaughtered for their meat has more than quintupled, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. Many of those goats are killed not in mass slaughterhouses but in quiet ceremonies on farms and in back yards.

It's a niche market that Schiner discovered accidentally. Not long after Schiner opened Wagon Wheel Ranch in 2004, a man called him to purchase a goat. "Do you mind if I kill the animal myself?" he asked Schiner, a self-proclaimed "Maryland boy" who has a tattoo of the state flag on his left shoulder.

"I wasn't expecting that request," Schiner recalled. "But sure, I thought, why not?" As Schiner nervously averted his eyes from that first killing, the ranch's do-it-yourself slaughter business was born.

Since then, Schiner has become something of an expert on religious and ethnic slaughter rituals, adapting his business to serve a foreign-born clientele. He watched Ghanaians light lambs on fire after killing them and then bought a flamethrower for his farm.

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